Santiago Gamboa: Vida feliz de un joven llamado Esteban [Happy Life of a Young Man Called Esteban]
This novel received a fair amount of acclaim in Latin America and, as you can see below, has been translated into three languages (but not, of course, English). While I certainly enjoyed reading it and it is well written, it did not fully work for me. While it does not seem to be a fully autobiographical novel, it is certainly partially autobiographical and is told (to a certain degree) as an autobiographical novel, i.e. in the first person, with the narrator, Esteban Hinestroza, narrating his life. What makes it not really a conventional autobiographical novel is that Esteban also tells the stories of other characters, friends and relatives, in some cases in some detail. We also follow the contemporary history of Colombia (and, to some degree, the past history of Colombia).
At the start of the novel, Esteban is living in Paris. He is living on his own. He has written two novels, which have not been very successful. He has been working on a mammoth novel, which, of course, is the one we are reading. He works as a journalist, employed by the French government. It had been his dream to have a stable life, with a regular income but now he has it, he is not so sure. As he says, when one knows the answers, the questions change. So here he is dipping back into his past.
As is the case of Gamboa, Esteban’s mother is an artist and his father an art historian. He has an older brother, Pablito. He was born on 31 December 1965 and we first meet him in 1966. The family is in Medellín. Esteban has a seemingly happy childhood, as the title of the book tells us. However, fairly early on we meet Colombian politics and the sub-stories. Esteban’s father, Joaquín, is involved in the student revolts, supporting the students against the authorities. Meanwhile, back home we meet Delia and Toño, who worked for the Hinestrozas. Toño is in love with Delia. Delia is in love with Father Blas Gerardo. He is a red priest, who fled Franco’s Spain and remains critical of authority. Toño tries hard to woo Delia without success, till the Hinestrozas employ another woman, Cory, an attractive widow. When Toño turns his attentions to her, Delia is jealous. However, she remains devoted to Father Blas. We will follow the story of three in some detail throughout the book, with Toño ending up joining the guerrillas and Delia and Father Blas getting together, resulting in Father Blas’ excommunication.
Esteban goes back to his parent’s childhood. Colombian politics took a turn for the worse in 1948. Jorge Eliécer Gaitán became head of the Liberal Party and then was later assassinated. Though a culprit was arrested and then murdered by the mob, it is not sure if he was the guilty party and, indeed, it is still not sure. (Interesting aside: though Gamboa does not mention it, three interesting characters were in Bogotá that day: George Marshall, US Secretary of State, for a meeting that eventually led to the creation of the Organisation of American States; a young law student was having his lunch nearby: Gabriel García Márquez and a young delegate to the Latin American Youth Conference, who had an appointment with Gaitán later that day: Fidel Castro). Gaitán’s murder resulted in what has become known as the Bogotazo, an orgy of violence, that left much of the town centre destroyed and numerous deaths, and was in part responsible for the violence that continues to this day in Colombia.
Esteban does not, of course, remember these events but has read and heard a lot about them, including the viciousness and cruelty of the troops and feels that, for reasons of justice, he must mention them, because, as he states, history often equally divides the blame between victim and executioner and that is not right in this case.
We follow the family as Joaquín loses his job and then makes some money in a shady deal involving pre-Columbian antiquities. The family moves to Bogotá, where Esteban goes to school. Apparently, it was the tradition for Bogotans to send their children to schools where instruction is in a foreign language. The point of this is, as Esteban cynically remarks, to make their children as unColombian as possible. Esteban ends up in an Italian school but is faced with snobbishness, whereby Italians are considered top of the totem pole. At this point we meet Federico, who has another complicated story we follow throughout the book, involving David, the brother of a woman, Isabel, who becomes his girlfriend. David committed suicide but no-one knows why, including his sister and Federico is determined to find out, which leads him on a complicated trail involving a group of devotees of reincarnation. He also gives Isabel a rundown on famous suicides.
Esteban makes friends with a loner called Ismael and, through him meets his sister, Silvia, who will later become his girlfriend. The main historical event is the Avianca building fire. Then they are off to Rome where we meet Darpeti, their landlord, who was a successful lawyer but an obsessive gambler, brought down by his addiction and now manages the four flats owned by his mother. Back in Bogotá, he is now at a French school where he meets some exiled Haitians whom the headmaster has recruited, who have some influence on him. However, the family moves to the North of Bogotá, where he will meet Natalia, the first love of life, and then he goes off to university. After that it is off to post-Franco Madrid and another girlfriend, Victoria, where he meets as many Latin Americans as Spaniards and where he drinks, plays chess and starts to write this book.
One interesting side to this book are the literary references. We get a crash course in Latin American literature but Esteban also reads a variety of books from Five Go to the Mystery Moor to Stefan Zweig’s Schachnovelle (Chess Story; The Royal Game), from H P Lovecraft to Rilke, and gives us his views on quite a few.
As I said at the beginning of this review, this is a thoroughly readable and enjoyable book. However, I always felt that something else might be about to happen but, apart from the stories of Federico and Toño and some of the political events taking place in Colombia, Esteban keeps us on a fairly straight (and strait) course. Of course, as we know from Tolstoy, happy lives are far less interesting than unhappy ones and, on the whole, Esteban has a happy life, though rarely what we might call an ecstatic one and, of course, happy lives are to be enjoyed.
First published in Spanish 2000 by Ediciones B
No English translation
First published in French as Esteban le héros by Éditions Metaillie in 2003
First published in German as Das glückliche Leben des jungen Esteban by Wagenbach in 2002
First published in Italian as Vita felice del giovane Esteban by Guanda in 2001